SEELEY, Wisconsin. It has been a good 18-20 years since I have raced the Birkie, so this is basically a new experience for me. What’s more, I am not only seeing it through my own eyes, but my wife Karen and I have brought along our three budding Nordic skiers, ages 5, 7 and 9. I think that I am enjoying their perceptions and reactions to this event as much as my own.
Yesterday, our bunch participated in the Barnebirkie, the huge ski â€œtourâ€ organized by the Sons of Norway, for kids up to 13 years old. That experience alone made our entire trip worthwhile. I will do my best to describe it as my kids saw it, based upon their comments and descriptions:
We pulled into Hayward about 1 hour before the start and dad parked the van at least a mile from registration. There were kids everywhere, and each had an average group of 4-5 with them including siblings, parents and grandparents. It was a looonnnggg walk to registration, and dad, for once, asked directions without mom’s prompting (she was trying to find a better parking place), and it was a good thing, too, because we were definitely going the wrong way.
Along the way, we saw the snow piled up on the streets of Hayward, and an honest to god snow cat was driving right down the street, grooming out a ribbon of speckled tan (but ski-able) snow. We saw some dopey dad get his minivan stuck right in the middle of the ski trail and we were real glad it was not ours. The snowcat driver got out and yelled and then a whole bunch of other dads pushed the minivan back onto the part of the road you were supposed to drive on (duh).
We waited in a short line and got real cloth bibs, stickers and cool pudding-in-a-tube snacks that we quickly snatched up but never actually ate.
The start was awesome. There must have been a thousand kids in three different waves (actual numbers may have been 1200 or more, but to a 3+ foot kid, any crowd that you can not see the end of is big). We found a spot at the back of the third wave, for the (longest) 5k race. Simon, our younger brother had some last minute worries and he and Mom moved up to the 2.5k wave.
They made us all wait a long time for each start, probably so the younger and slower kids could get spread out. The start and first part of the race was lined with all of the moms, dads, grandmas and grandpas, screaming and ringing silly cow bells. It was cool because we brought all four of our grand parents to yell. It is not really supposed to be a race, by the way, because they don’t give you a time or even tell you your place when you cross the finish line. However, we knew exactly how many kids we had passed along the way, and made sure that we told mom and dad whenever we saw them, even if we wiped out trying to talk over our shoulder.
Simon seemed to be about the only kid out there skating without poles. He is pretty small, even for a 5 year old, and a large group of Junior High kids from Minneapolis were very impressed when he passed them (they were classic skiing on fish scales that had â€œclumped upâ€ in the falling, wet snow). There is nothing that can make a 5 year grin more than having a bunch of really big kids say â€œWow, how does he do that?â€ But for every kid sailing along like Simon, there were at least 2 or 3 more not half as big as he, and we could not believe they could ski a whole kilometer, but they sure did, dragging a mom or dad along with them.
The finish was a huge party, with tables and tables of hot chocolate and cookies. Later we heard that over 15,000 cookies were served, which is about right, because we each had at least 10.
I caught up with our kids and Karen at the finish. Actually, I watched our middle child, Linnea, disappear into a sea of half pint humanity at the finish as I struggled to get around the barriers and into the â€œpartyâ€ area. Less than a minute later, I was there, calling her name. The thing is, in this land of Scandehoovians, that is sort of like searching for Brenda Sue at the Texas State Fair. I think I got the attention of well over a dozen little girls before I found mine ten minutes later, at the cookie table, of course.Â
I have always marveled at the different sort of participation in endurance events like skiing and cycling, in the Midwest where I grew up, and our current backyard in the Rockies. There is something in the culture here that makes it â€œokâ€ for 6000 citizen athletes to participate in a very grueling event, finishing sometimes hours after the elite athletes, and then enjoying talking about the experience for the next year, in anticipation of repeating it all over again. From the looks of the Barnebirkie, this healthy phenomenon is not in danger of dying out anytime soon.